Govan on the Permanent-ish Collection

Faith Ringgold, American People's Series #2: Die, 1967. Museum of Modern Art
The Museum of Modern Art has reopened with a less permanent, less traditional display of its permanent collection (Ringgold's race riot next to Picasso's sex workers). Reviews have been mixed but more positive than not. Several critics have made the connection to Michael Govan's vision for the Peter Zumthor building that is to hold most of LACMA's permanent collection.  There too the intention is to change collection installations regularly. But the LACMA plans, years from realization, have been viewed with almost universal skepticism. I recently spoke with Govan on the Zumthor building's installation.

Three-year rotations
My first question was about the time frame. Govan said that, in the current thinking, the permanent collection installations in the Zumthor building would be on view for about three years. In comparison MoMA says that 1/3 of its galleries will be reinstalled every six months. That implies a typical ~18 month-cycle between MoMA reinstallations.
Eagle-Headed Deity from Ashurnasirpal II's palace, Nimrud, 9th century BC
There will be exceptions. Light-sensitive works will be rotated much more frequently, as demanded by the usual conservation requirements. I asked Govan about the five alabaster panels from Ashurnasirpal II's palace—up to 2 tons each—that will have have to be mounted to Zumthor's concrete walls to stand up to the Big One to come. He said the Assyrian panels would remain in place longer than the usual rotation cycle; likewise for something like Matisse's ceramic mural La Gerbe or the Damascus room.

"Permanent" is relative. An installation of a typical museum's permanent collection might stay up a decade or two. The typical LACMA time frame would be accelerated relative to that, though about twice as long as MoMA's.
Georges de La Tour, Magdalene With the Smoking Flame, about 1635-37
No broken hearts
MoMA drawings curator Sarah Suzuki said: "I like to say we’re not in the business of breaking hearts." She meant that the museum shouldn't disappoint those who came to see van Gogh's Starry Night or the Warhol Soup Cans. The most significant, non-light-sensitive works would be on view essentially all the time, barring loans or conservation.

So I asked Govan whether something like Georges de La Tour's Magdalene would go off view? He was emphatic: "Never!" (Adding that Christopher Knight asked the same question.) The Magdalene might be moved within the Zumthor building, but it would always be on view, excepting loans, etc.

I asked about groups of works, such as the extraordinary collection of Spanish Colonial art that LACMA has assembled in recent years. That too would remain on view, Govan said, though the selection might be filtered through a particular installation's premise.

Juxtapositions & Non-Sequiturs
Most MoMA reviews have remarked on the cheeky pairing of Picasso's 1907 Demoiselles with Faith Ringgold's 1967 American People Series #20: Die (top of post). It's a brilliant subversion of art historic hierarchies—or pandering to woke culture—or both.
Porcelain Saucer Glazed in Imitation of a Fuzhou Chrysamthemum-Shaped Lacquer, China, 1774: José Manuel de la Cerda, Tray, Mexico, about 1760
Would LACMA do that sort of thing? Govan said it would be up to the curators. There has been talk of showing Persian miniatures next to contemporary Iranian art referencing traditional Persian superheroes (something done in 2018's "In the Fields of Empty Days.") But overall the installations are expected to be grounded in scholarship. They would sometimes explore connections between global cultures, a theme of much current interest. As for-instances, Govan mentioned the possibility of an installation on lacquer in East Asia and Latin America; or Baroque art on both sides of the Atlantic.

Modern LACMA
The chronologic/cultural lines of demarcation between the older art in the Zumthor building and the modern/contemporary art in BCAM have yet to be determined. In fall 2020 LACMA is to open a new installation of its modern collection, on the top floor of BCAM. Stephanie Barron will curate, and Frank Gehry will design the installation. If well-received, modern art might remain in BCAM.
Henri Matisse, Tea, 1919

I'm encouraged that LACMA plans to keep major objects on view; that the proposed thematic installations don't sound frivolous or dumbed-down; that the refresh cycle is not too frenetic.

The new programs ask a lot of LACMA's curators—and its collection. MoMA has 57 Matisse paintings. LACMA has one. Should MoMA want to show a dozen Matisses at a given time, it's got options. LACMA either shows Tea or doesn't show any Matisse painting. (Govan mentioned Tea as one of the paintings to be always on view, presumably in BCAM.)

The curators will need to be good at juggling, or maybe working a Rubik's cube. They're being asked to keep the most significant objects on view while fitting them gracefully into ever-changing installations that tell stories that haven't quite been told before. MoMA's curators seem to have pulled it off—for the inaugural installation.

MoMA's permanent collection ought to go through four full refreshes before the Zumthor building opens (about 2024) How well the new scheme plays out at MoMA might be a leading indicator of how manageable is the challenge that LACMA has taken on.


Anonymous said…
MOMA has 57 Matisses, LACMA has - ta-da! - one?

No wonder the latter wants to downsize the square footage of its galleries. That along with all its red ink should help make LACMA better than ever.

Curators physically separated from their collections, curators juggling two areas of expertise, a smaller auditorium, a reduced conservation lab? Who cares?

We don't need no stinkin' badges.

LACMA wants to compete with museums in places like Phoenix, Des Moines or Peoria? What's wrong with that?
Anonymous said…
It's not just MOMA and LACMA. The Met is shaking things up too...

From the NYTimes article on the new director: "On March 4, the museum will start a new series of installations from its permanent collection called “Crossroads” that explore themes across departments whose galleries are near one another, namely Medieval, Asian and Greek and Roman."

Curiously, both the Director of LACMA and the Met were mentored by Thomas Krens.

On that note, it also curious to ponder Krens' lasting influence on LA culture. Bilbao was Krens' idea; he hired Gehry. The completion of Bilbao arguably revived interest in Disney Hall, which floundered itself in fundraising limbo until the Guggenheim Bilbao showed LA what fools we were.
Anonymous said…
Looking at MoMA as a comparison is the wrong lens, we should compare what happens to the LACMA collection to the MET instead, or any other Encyclopedic Museum, because that is what LACMA is. In fact, it is the largest encyclopedic museum west of the Mississippi. Well, now it is. But Govan is about to destroy LACMA and it's carefully amassed collections. The various departments will be destroyed, torn apart and placed in storage for the most part, and the museum will be degraded to permanently changing exhibitions. Sound bites. Little commentaries instead of serious research and collections with depth. Nothing encyclopedic about it anymore. That would work for MoMA or any other museum dedicated to a specific category of art. All its aspects can be shown in changing exhibitions drawn from a fast collection in storage. But that does not work for encyclopedic museums like the MET or LACMA that have a responsibility to represent many different cultures and times. We need catalogs of art and culture in order to start riffing, mixing, matching. You destroy our cataloging references and you destroy the basis for a world that prefers to speak in associations, references, new mixes of old things etc. Does not work if the basic catalogues of meaning are destroyed. If this is all an old hat for you, then save LACMA for our children!